Travel Story Remote, white graveyard

Adventure Canada group hiking on Beechey Island, in the Arctic.
Picture: Stephen Scourfield The West Australian
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Retracing the fate of the Franklin Expedition in the Arctic.

Four gravestones stand grey against the white snow. Wind whips off the ridge, down the frozen valley, and I fumble to pull my hood tighter, fingers already painful and numbing against the cold.

Was there ever a more remote and piteous, pure and beautiful cemetery than this on Beechey Island, in the High Arctic?

Three are the graves of John Torrington, John Hartnell and William Braine, who died as the Franklin Expedition overwintered here from 1845-46. Sir John Franklin left England in 1845 with two British Royal Navy ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to search for the fabled Northwest Passage.

For four decades, adventurers had been trying to find a faster way through the Arctic ice, for a speedier trade route between Europe and Asia.

Beechey Island was their last known whereabouts. All 129 members of the expedition clearly perished but how that happened is a mystery that has caught imaginations ever since.

And then, in 2014, the wreck of the Erebus was found and, last September, the wreck of the Terror was found.

It ended 170 years of searching. More than 40 expeditions have searched for the Franklin party, the biggest search in human history. Originally they were prompted by Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane, and others, who largely embarrassed the British Admiralty into funded rescue voyages for the adventurers, who by then hadn’t been heard of for two years.

Today there is just one. Us. Adventure Canada’s ice-class ship Ocean Endeavour has drifted outside Erebus and Terror Bay all night for fear of getting icebound in there. The Adventure Canada team under Inuit expedition leader Jason Edmunds dispatch bear monitors to check the area is safe and, bearing guns, set up a safe area. We arrive on the beach in Zodiacs, and I walk through deep snow to the graves.

The three Franklin men’s graves were first found when the search fleet arrived in 1850. The fourth grave is that of Thomas Morgan, who was on a later voyage. 

For the big searches of 1850 were far from the end of it. The graves were found, it was known that the Franklin Expedition had overwintered, but where had it gone?

In 1854, Inuit people on King William Island told adventurer John Rae stories about the party. In 1859, Francis McClintock found a note throwing light on the expedition’s fate on the island. Dated April 25, 1848, and hidden in a stone cairn, it said Erebus and Terror had been abandoned three days earlier, stuck in sea ice. At that point, there were 105 men left alive — Sir John had died in June 1847, and another 26 men had perished. But the search continued for much of the 19th century — the public was intrigued by this mystery.

From the gravesites, we walk a couple of kilometres, through sometimes knee-deep snow, to the timber remains of the rather too grandly named Northumberland House — a simple building once constructed here but now a ruin. I see the mast of a boat called Mary, which was left here by one search expedition to be used by members of the Franklin Expedition, if they found their way back.

The rest of the boat has been pillaged and souvenired, as has most of Northumberland House. This is now a protected archaeological site, and the Adventure Canada team, led here by archaeologist Latonia Hartery, historian Season Osborne and Inuit culturists Edna Elias and Lois Suluk, are careful to see that nothing is disturbed or moved.

But one thing is moved. Even in a group, there can be moments of solitude. And in this isolated place, in the eerie dim spotlight of sun pushing through the sepia clouds, watching the cold wind push across the glistening, frosty snow, I am moved.

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